Clad in an azure T-shirt and light green khaki shorts, Guy Dean arrives at the Yaounde Central Hospital aboard his VW Transporter. The 60-year-old is accompanied by the British High Commissioner to Cameroon, Christian Dennys McClure.
Mr. Dean, a retired British Colonel is a man on a journey across Africa, the sole aim being to raise awareness about Parkinson’s disease-a disease less known, and less understood on the continent, but one that is affecting ever larger numbers of people.
Statistics suggest that by 2040, more than 13 million people will be living with neurodegenerative illnesses across the globe. A quarter of them will be in Africa.
Yet in Dean’s words, sufferers in Africa are often stigmatized and considered as having been the cursed-enough justification for his 12,000-mile journey across the continent.
“Understanding how they are thinking and how they are feeling is very important to them because many of them have been abandoned by their families, by their friends,” Dean told Timescape Magazine.
Guy Dean started his journey in 2020 and completed over 4000 miles across Europe, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea, before arriving in Sierra Leone.
But the journey was interrupted because of Covid-19. With countries now reopening their borders, the Parkinson’s Ambassador has resumed his journey, set to complete the 8000 miles that will end in South Africa.
It’s hardly an easy task for a man living with an incurable disease that is characterized by tremors in several parts of the body, muscle stiffness, slowness of movement, impaired balance, and coordination, sometimes leading to falls. Yet, Dean believes in the relieving power of his mission.
“I want people in Africa to know that you can have Parkinson’s and still do things. It’s only that you have to try a bit harder, and so you can live your life and live your dreams.”
He has to overcome several obstacles as he drives across Africa: the speed breaks he describes as “walls” and filling forms at the orders.
“It’s not the driving that is difficult. It’s the routine bits and pieces. It’s the fact that I can’t fill a form out. So, every time I get to the frontiers and have to deal with customs, I look at a form and I say, I can’t do this, I have to ask people to help fill forms and border controls can’t understand how someone who can’t fill a form is driving a car.”
He said when he set out on his African tour, he wanted to go alone, and do everything by himself. But “the problem with Parkinson’s is that it doesn’t get better. It only gets worse every day.”
Now weakened by the disease, he needs help from time to time to be able to cope with the challenges of the journey.
“On good days, I am absolutely fine, and everything is pretty normal, and people wouldn’t think there is anything wrong with me, but on bad days, I just wish the earth could open up and swallow me up,” Dean told Timescape Magazine.
Yet, the drive to overcome has kept him going. “Each day for me is another day of victory.”
It is that winning drive that Dean wants to pass on to Parkinson’s patients across Africa. And he comes to Cameroon at a time the country’s neurologists are expressing alarm at the rising levels of Parkinson’s disease in the country, with 5 in every 100 admitted persons in hospital suffering from the condition-a situation made worse by the fact that more and more young people are being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, according to Dr Leonard Ngarka, a consultative neurologist at the Yaounde Central Hospital and lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences(CUSS) at the University of Yaounde 1.
“From our previous consultations, we have more and more younger people with this condition. So, it is really serious. Imagine a condition like this which is quickly invalidating and begins to touch young people. It’s really critical and one aspect about it which makes it critical is that it is not a curable condition.”
The medic said no studies as yet have been carried out to determine the reasons for the rise in infections, but there are hypotheses linking it to the consumption of toxins and excess alcohol.